From Lady Gaga to Robbie Williams, we reckon these songs would be hailed as rock classics if they were released by, y’know, a rock band
Let’s all be honest with ourselves for a second here: us rock fans can be a little on the fickle side when push comes to shove. Pop music, as the cliché goes, is The Enemy. Manufactured opium for the masses. Empty-hearted ear-candy with no soul. ‘Fake music!’, we cry.
And yet, Kiss release a full-on disco banger in I Was Made For Loving You and it becomes widely hailed as an all-time classics. Ozzy Osbourne, The Godfather Of Heavy Metal, The Prince Of Fucking Darkness himself, releases a power ballad so syrupy-sweet in Mama I’m Coming Home that it’d make Celine Dion gag, and it becomes one of his defining anthems.
Rock and heavy metal is awash with songs that, if they were released by anyone other than the bands we love, would be roundly dismissed by the rock ‘n’ roll faithful. And, on the flip-side, pop music has actually produced a surprising number of heavier songs that, were they released by four hairy blokes with instruments, would be readily celebrated by your average rock acolyte.
With that in mind, here are eleven classic rock anthems from distinctly Not Rock artists that have filled many a guilty pleasure playlist over the years. It’s OK. We’re all friends here: you can embrace them now.
The Osmonds – Crazy Horses (1972)
While the super-shiny band of brothers The Osmonds had flirted with rock music by the time 1972 came around, no one was quite prepared for the group that had given us One Bad Apple to do a full-on leap into rollicking heavy metal. “Before that, my brothers and I had been what’s now called a boyband,” singer Merrill told The Guardian. “All our songs were chosen for us by the record company. But now, having been successful, we wanted to freak out and make our own music. We were rehearsing in a basement one day when Wayne started playing this heavy rock riff. I came up with a melody and Alan got the chords. Within an hour, we had the song.” The gamble paid off: 50 years on, it remains their most famous hit.
Lady Gaga – Yoü And I (2011)
Lady Gaga’s rock credentials remain bulletproof: she’s previously professed her love for Iron Maiden, has cited Kiss and Queen as major influences and duetted with Metallica at the Grammys. In 2011, she produced what remains one of her finest moments on 2011’s fabulously OTT Born This Way album. Teaming with powerhouse rock producer Mutt Lange, she crafted the magnificent Yoü And I, a swaggering, full-throated country-rock epic that stands up against any rock power ballad you’d care to name from the last three decades. Oh, and there’s also a song called Heavy Metal Lover on that very same album. Clearly, Gaga has rock ‘n’ roll in her soul.
Christina Aguilera – Fighter (2002)
Dirrty, the first single from 2002’s Stripped, may have signalled Christina Aguilera’s dramatic shift from doe-eyed pop princess to ass-kicking, sexually-empowered badass, but it was that album’s third single, Fighter, that arguably provided a new career peak. A stomping, guitar-powered, defiant post-break-up anthem, it featured contributions from Jane’s Addiction axeman Dave Navarro, who’d appear with Xtina at the 2003 MTV VMA awards to perform the song. The video is amazing, too: directed by Floria Sigismondi, who had previously worked with the likes of David Bowie, Marilyn Manson and Bjork, it was a dark, deliciously gothic vision unlike much else in mainstream pop media at the time.
Robbie Williams – Let Me Entertain You (1997)
Robbie Williams has made no mystery of rock ‘n’ roll’s influence on Let Me Entertain You, the fifth and final single released from his post-Take That solo debut, 1997’s Life Thru A Lense. As he tells it, the track was inspired into being after the pop star watched bombastic Rolling Stones concert film, The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus. “We watched Rock Circus and after that we went and recorded Let Me Entertain You,” said the man himself. “When we started writing the demo there was a furious jungle beat underneath it, it was so hardcore it got me very excited, and I still get excited listening to it now. It’s not really heavy metal, it’s more like camp rock opera!” Williams would complete the theme by shamelessly plundering Kiss’s entire look for the video.
Kelly Clarkson – Since U Been Gone (2004)
18 years after its release, you’ll struggle to find a pop punk or emo-themed club night that can resist the temptation to roll out this absolute, certified banger. For second album Breakaway, the original American Idol winner embraced her love of rock music through working with the likes of Avril Lavigne and former members of Evanescence. Sounding like someone took Feeder’s Buck Rogers, gave it an extra layer of polish and injected it with bubblegum-lined steroids, Since U Been Gone is the kind of pitch-perfect modern rock anthem that a thousand ‘proper’ bands have tried – and failed – to nail over the last twenty years.
Pink – Trouble (2003)
Pink is a lifelong rock fan and has a number of guitar-driven anthems that could have made it into this list. Trouble, however, was the song that signified the pop superstar fully embracing that side of her palette, released as the lead single from her third album Try This. Teaming up with none other than Rancid legend Tim Armstrong to write the song, the single unsurprisingly leans in on punk rock as a key influence, even managing to nab Pink a Grammy win in the (now sadly defunct) Best Female Rock Vocal Performance category.
Olivia Rodrigo – Good 4 U (2021)
Good 4 U is so shameless in its debt to Paramore’s Misery Business that, following outcries of plagiarism from Paramore fans, Rodrigo retroactively added singer Hayley Williams and former guitarist Josh Farro to the writing credits. Some claimed it was a lovingly knowing sign of respect and gratitude, while Variety reported that the credit may have recognized that parts of Misery Business were actually used in the song. It doesn’t matter: Good 4 U was a monstrously huge pop-rock smash, clocking up billions of streams and becoming one of the defining songs of 2021. It’s bloody great, too.
Miley Cyrus – Midnight Sky (2020)
Another pop star who’s made no secret of her love of rock ‘n’ roll, Miley Cyrus went all the way in 2020 by roping in the likes of Joan Jett and Billy Idol for her 80s-tastic Plastic Hearts album. Lead single Midnight Sky was a wonderful reinvention for the singer, channelling everyone from Blondie to Stevie Nicks into a smooth, neon-flecked synth-rock rager. Miley would, of course, embrace heavy metal the following year with a critically acclaimed cover of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters for their immense Blacklist project.
Girls Aloud – No Good Advice (2003)
If Girls Aloud’s debut single, 2002’s Sound Of The Underground, flirted with rock via a unique mash-up of twangy surfer rock and thumping drum ‘n’ bass, follow-up single No Good Advice took things one step further by beefing up the guitars and layering them with pumping disco beats and swathes of futuristic synth. It might not be the most celebrated song in Girls Aloud’s back catalogue, but the rockiest? You betcha.
Rina Sawayama – STFU! (2020)
“My music is a blend of a lot of different genres, but I always find myself taking inspiration from metal,” Japanese-British singer-songwriter Sawayama told Metal Hammer last year when discussing her cover of Metallica‘s Enter Sandman. “Songs like STFU! and XS obviously have metal/nu metal influences. I love matching pop production with crunchy guitar riffs and an epic solo.” Never has her combo worked better than on 2020’s STFU!, a riff-driven insta-classic with so much bounce it sounds like it belongs on an Anger Management tour in 2000.
Demi Lovato – Skin Of My Teeth (2022)
Many rock fans reacted with surprise and even disgust when it was revealed that guitarist Nita Strauss had left Alice Cooper’s band to play alongside pop chameleon Demi Lovato. In truth, the reaction was a little over the top: Lovato has always flirted with the alternative end of the pop spectrum, and this year’s grungy, Hole-aping Skin Of My Teeth single represented a new dawn for the singer. Pop punk follow-up Substance, performed live on Jimmy Kimmel with Strauss in tow, confirmed that Lovato has gone Full Rock for their next chapter – and they’re pulling it off with aplomb.